Is the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team ready for Beijing?
Some people are shrouding a cloud over the team and questions are stirring up controversy.
Can a new head coach bring the U.S. Team to an Olympic gold medal?
On Nov. 13, 2007, the Women’s National Team was assigned Pia Sundhage, who replaced Greg Ryan, who was fired after the U.S. team finished third in the Women’s World Cup in China.
Sundhage is the sixth head coach in U.S. Women’s National Team history, who brings an impressive resume to the team.
She is the first foreign coach to take the helm of the U.S. Team and second woman ever; however, this is not her first assignment for U.S. Soccer.
Sundhage served as a scout for the USA during the 2004 Olympics.
She coached in the WUSA during all three-years of its existence, serving as the top assistant for the Philadelphia Charge during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, before taking over as head coach of the Boston Breakers in 2003.
Sundhage led the Breakers to a regular season championship and its first playoff berth.
Sundhage started her coaching career while still playing, serving as a player-coach for the Hammarby Club from 1992 to 1994. She also, coached Sweden’s Youth National Team for 11-years from 1990 to 2001.
After her retirement from the international game in 1996, she became head coach of the Sweden Under 19 Women’s National Team, leading them to one gold medal and two bronze medals at the European Championships.
After the WUSA League ceased operations, Sundhage coached for half a season in Norway at Kolbotn, one of the country’s top clubs, before returning to her native Sweden, where she coached KIF Orebro in Sweden’s top division for two-and-half-years.
During her international career with Sweden, Sundhage played against the United States numerous times, including matches at the 1991 Women’s World Cup and in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
In 2000, she finished sixth in the voting for FIFA Women’s Player of the Century.
How will the loss of Kristine Lilly; Leslie Osborne; Abby Wambach, arguably the best women's soccer player in the world and Cat Whitehill affect the team?
Lilly, Osborne, Wambach and Whitehill’s loss to the team can be extremely detrimental, but the U.S. WNT has a pool of talent to make up for its losses.
Kristine Lilly, former Captain and world leader in games played at the national level, will not have a roster spot with the 2008 Olympic team.
Lilly, 36, is currently on maternity leave.
She leads the team with international goals scored (129) in just 340 caps, set in October.
Her quickness on offense and superb ball control made her one of the most feared forwards in the world.
“We lost so much experience from Lilly, a captain and we had to adjust in some way or another,” Sundhage said. “My glass is half full, so I looked at it in a positive way.”
It’s more about the team than talking about the good ol’ days with great players such as Lilly, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. They’re not here any longer, so now other players need to step up and make an impact.
“You know, I think the players like the team, like the way we prepared for the Olympics,” Sundhage said.
With this loss, comes another.
Ironically, the U.S. women lost defender Heather Mitts to an ACL tear a year and 10 days before Leslie Osborne’s injury, ruling Mitts out of the 2007 Women’s World Cup, but she has returned to play with the USA and is contending for a spot on the Olympic Team this summer.
Osborne was a rising star after Shannon Boxx went down in the summer of 2006.
One of the last players cut from the Gold Medal winning 2004 Olympic team, Osborne’s ascension on the National Team was sparked by that cursed injury.
When Shannon Boxx tore her ACL in the summer of 2006, Osborne, also a defensive midfielder, latched onto the opportunity.
She made such an immediate impact as a starter that when Boxx returned; head Coach, Greg Ryan, sometimes trotted out a lineup that included both players.
At the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Osborne drew four starts and served as a defensive specialist, shutting down Sweden’s, Victoria Svensson and England’s, Kelly Smith.
In a cruel twist, Osborne is not the only U.S. player adjusting to a new, undesired reality.
A week after her ACL was repaired; Osborne woke to find an email in her inbox from teammate Heather O’Reilly. Cat hurt her knee. Keep her in your prayers. We’re hoping it’s just her meniscus.
A MRI undergone in Seoul, South Korea extinguished that flicker of hope. Cat Whitehill, a veteran defender, had likewise torn her left ACL during training and will miss the Olympics.
The WNT has used the bench from the very beginning and the players are coming off the bench in a very nice way while their performance has been good.
Angela Hucles has shown that coming off the bench during this tournament, can make a strong impact and play well from the very beginning.
Tobin Heath, the youngest player, just loves to play soccer. It doesn’t matter who she’s playing. She’s tricky and she tries to be unpredictable, which is great, Sundhage said.
Amy Rodriguez offers speed.
“I’m very sad that these two, Cat Whitehill and Leslie Osborne, are not with us, but it is what it is and you have to adjust your play,” Sundhage said. “I’m very happy with these players and I do think we have depth on the bench.”
Unfortunately, arguably, the world's best women's soccer player, Abby Wambach, will be out with a broken tibia and fibula, and is scheduled for surgery on July 17, three weeks before the opening ceremony.
On a night when the U.S. women should have been eyeing the upcoming Olympics, they were dealt a crushing blow to their gold medal hopes when Wambach broke he left leg in San Diego.
The team's leading scorer was carted off the field after a violent collision in the first half of the 1-0 win against Brazil.
"My heart sank," Natasha Kai said. "We need her. She's a big piece of a great team."
In her place comes 20-year-old Lauren Cheney, sophomore from UCLA.
That leaves at least four roster spots open for younger players and the young players will need to work hard and step up big.
Can such a young team compete at the level of many other veteran teams?
Sure, they can.
The WNT is one of the hardest working teams in the world, on the field and have won a substantial amount of championships.
With a change in captain, Christie Rampone has made an extra adjustment to prepare her team for more victory.
“We have a great captain in Christie Rampone,” sundhage said. “She is not loud, if you compare her to Foudy, for instance.”
Christie communicates in other ways — leading by example.
“I know that I can trust her 100 percent,” Sundhage said.
There is a great balance of leadership on this U.S. Team.
The only thing that may hurt the team this August is Hope Solo’s controversial remarks made last year after USA’s loss to Brazil when head coach, Greg Ryan, made a roster switch in the keeper position starting Briana Scurry instead.
Does Hope Solo’s past debacle with the team garner her ability to perform?
It may also set a firecracker under her, giving Solo the drive to win the gold and prove her skills between the posts.
Right now, she is playing the most minutes of all the players.
Defender, Heather Mitts, is just coming back from an ACL injury.
Can she perform up to expectation and help Solo in the back?
“I think she is happy. I am happy with the way she has been playing. It’s tough. She’s been away from the game for so long," Sundhage said. “She doesn’t last for 90 minutes, you can see that, but I am happy with the minutes she had. That’s a good start for her.”
“The knee feels really good, believe it or not. It’s been a process and I’ve had a lot of setbacks, so hopefully I can take it one day at a time,” Mitts said.
Her feisty defensive play at outside back and ability to attack down the flanks has made her an important member of the USA’s back line.
Usually, an outside defender, Pia Sundhage might switch Mitts to the middle.
The thing is, if you fool around with the defenders, you want them to find a role, so hopefully the team will find a back four and play them many minutes together.
Mitts has been very professional.
She was injured and couldn’t go to the World Cup and she’s come back. She had it pretty tough in March when the team went to the Algarve Cup, but she’s been very careful and done everything in a very professional way, Sundhage said.
Her ability one-v-one defending, experience, speed and attacking ability is good for the team.
“I’m very happy that she’s back," Sundhage said. “I talked about Heather Mitts when I talked to Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill. It’s so hard to get injured just before a big tournament, but you can do it if you are professional with everything you do, and Mitts has been.”
Of course, there is always room for improvement, but the WNT has a great amount of strengths.
They are brave and can play in different systems on beat.
Players balance each other out and if the WNT can continue to possess with the purpose to move forward, I think we will see our World Champions bring home the gold…again.
Britney Milazzo is a Contributor for Bleacher Report.
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